Everyone has a favorite anecdote about hapless relatives or friends who relied too heavily on their car navigation device and ended up getting lost, making themselves and GPS look ridiculous. No new technology suffers fools well, and it is unfortunate for consumers, the GPS industry and possibly the long-term fate of this amazing utility that its most commonly seen face, the car navigation device, has made GPS wear the makeup of a clown.

GPS is arguably one of the most successful federal endeavors in modern times; an investment of around $30 billion over 30 years has generated, as some estimate, hundreds of billions in cost savings, innovation and improved public safety. It is likely the only weapons system ever to provide direct cost-benefit to the public; having built it originally for U.S. military purposes, the team that dreamed up and designed GPS envisioned future civilian uses, and in 1983, following the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by a Soviet fighter, President Ronald Reagan signed an order opening GPS for civilian uses. Thirty successful years have seen GPS grow as a vital utility, realizing staggering cost savings in precision agriculture, aviation, public safety, science and industry, but most of that was nearly invisible to the general public. It was not until recent years when GPS hit the consumer market that anyone seemed to notice, and rather than benefitting GPS, this consumer revelation and the sometimes comical aspects to the most visible implementations may have become a liability in recent controversies over the future of GPS.

I recently attended a dinner party with some acquaintances who hail from the heart of the information age — information technology professionals from such firms as Google and Microsoft. It was a fascinating evening, humbling and informative. The subject somehow turned to GPS, and the tirades began: Someone’s sister or brother drove in circles listening to the inane GPS voice; the rural utility worker does his rounds not having any idea where he really is; GPS is killing maps and people’s ability to read maps. I’m a real “maphead” who can bore people to tears with my nostalgia for compass and sextant, but I also realize that GPS enables dynamic maps and much more. If these very intelligent tablemates were not aware of the bigger GPS picture, it is no indictment of them, but it does illustrate that the GPS community has done a poor job of promotion and outreach.

I have tried to explain to skeptics that there are far more benefits from GPS than these amusing anecdotes belie, but often with disappointing results. Most are not aware that the broadest use of GPS is timing: Computer systems, cellular systems (including 4G) and data transmissions are timed and synchronized via the timing transmissions, accurate to nano- and picoseconds, from the atomic clocks in GPS satellites. If you explain that farmers can guide their machinery to centimeter precision, you might get the response, “Why would they ever want to do that?” Folks spend little time considering the increased yields and reductions in fertilizer, water and fuel because they cannot reconcile the farmer’s desire for centimeter precision with the many meters of imprecision yielded by their phone or car navigation “toy.”

Not that there are not serious concerns with misuse and overreliance on GPS enabled devices, and consumer products in particular. The U.S. Department of Transportation is studying the problem of commercial trucking utilizing car GPS devices, and the increasing cases of trucks navigating under low bridges (clearances typically not noted on car navigation devices). If GPS is not utilized as intended or the user drifts into overreliance, disasters can happen. The same can be said of the automobile, the airplane and even the personal computer. Would it be right to judge the information age by focusing on the negative or ludicrous — porn, piracy, viruses, scams and gaming trolls?

GPS bashing may seem harmless, but there is a potentially hazardous side to this: GPS as we know it may be in jeopardy. The billions of dollars saved annually, jobs created, technologies enabled — earthquake studies, precision agriculture, marine navigation, floodplain mapping, atmospheric studies, too many to list — these are in jeopardy as some would like to throw GPS under a bus to make way for more (but only slightly more) 4G wireless. Let’s back up a bit.

The telecommunications boom has added immeasurable benefit and utility to our lives in so many ways: how we work, play, entertain ourselves and shape our economic future. Improved connectivity is seen as the next big information age step, in the form of enhanced broadband access. GPS-enabled innovations in this newly geospatially charged world will benefit from enhanced broadband as well. We in the U.S. envy other countries that have average broadband speeds sometimes four times ours, and like South Korea at a tenth of the per unit costs. There have been a number of calls, most notably from the president, for 500 megahertz of new broadband spectrum to help boost industry and the economy. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) heeded the call and has vowed to leave no stone unturned in search of available radio spectrum. But sometimes it is not necessarily a good idea to utilize everything we might find under those stones. One particular initiative is proving to be far more potentially harmful than originally thought, and all for 10 to 20 megahertz of new broadband spectrum.

About a decade ago, Harbinger Capital, a New York hedge fund that would go on to do very well betting against the recent mortgage crisis, took interest in a small satellite communications company, SkyTerra (which it acquired and rolled into a new company, LightSquared, in 2010) that had rights to a small chunk of spectrum traditionally dedicated for satellite-based transmissions. Satellite spectrum is typically kept away from terrestrial spectrum, which is often millions or even billions of times more powerful as transmitted than the weak signals received on the ground from satellites. These satellite bands are described as “quiet neighborhoods.” To really leverage this acquired spectrum, a decade-long plan was begun by the hedge fund alchemists to turn this less-valuable satellite spectrum “straw” into terrestrial “gold.” Indeed, the FCC did authorize modest terrestrial to this company to act as “ancillary” to its satellite transmissions in 2004. It is to be noted that this and other broadband initiatives are being proposed using private funds, which is admirable but not completely selfless: There are huge potential profits that could be realized for some. But this will not come without costs to other industries and taxpayers; billions of dollars in lost productivity, equipment replacements and jobs eliminated or exported are the price we may have to pay over as much as a decade while alternatives to existing GPS are developed and adopted.

It was a January conditional waiver granted by the FCC to authorize full terrestrial transmissions in this quiet neighborhood that started a firestorm. The problem is that the much quieter neighbor is the band in which GPS signals reside. Some liken this application to a developer wanting to build a casino in a quiet neighborhood, and then going to the city council to get the zoning changed. The FCC ordered tests to determine just how harmful the new transmissions might be to GPS uses. Supporters characterized this as a battle between broadband and GPS, claiming that the GPS industry was exaggerating the potential interference risks. The test completed in July showed substantial interference across all types of GPS use.

A counterproposal was floated to work further down in the spectrum in question with an (untested) plan that supporters say would harm only 1 percent of GPS uses. That might sound like an insignificant number, but if one considers that less than 1 percent of motorized vehicles on the roads are emergency vehicles, it’s clear that a simple number expressing an “acceptable collateral loss” can be misleading. Indeed, the 1 percent of GPS uses in question (if those were truly the only ones affected, as this counterproposal was not tested as such) represents nearly all high-precision GPS uses, including aviation, surveying, precision agriculture, science and public safety — over half of the estimated $100 billion annual productivity gains and about $2 billion in equipment and infrastructure. A failure or rethinking of this 4G plan does not spell the end of the future of 4G, only of this particular plan; many other proposals are nowhere near the GPS signals.

An unprecedented coalition of GPS industries was formed to raise concerns; 32 U.S. senators signed a letter of concern; hearings were held in the House. Letters to the FCC from multiple federal agencies have urged caution, including a Federal Aviation Administration advisory report warning of billions of dollars lost annually, a big setback on the next generation of air traffic management systems, and as many as 800 lives lost. Despite these strong expressions of concern, the decision lies almost solely in the hands of the FCC. To the agency’s credit, it did order new tests of the “lower band” counterproposal, which may run well into 2012.

In the interim, the applicant has taken its case to the public, portraying this as an epic battle between an obsolete and obstructionist GPS and the entire future of 4G. Others have turned it into a political wedge issue, claiming political influence-peddling and collusion. This does not appear to have hurt the plan but rather may help boosters and lobbyists by making any technological arguments against the plan seem politically motivated.

There are also international elements of this controversy to consider. Constellations of navigation satellites are rapidly expanding beyond the original U.S. Navstar system (aka GPS). The Russian Glonass constellation is reaching maturity; the Chinese Beidou/Compass system is on a fast track of launches, as are the European Galileo, Japanese Quasi-Zenith and regional system of India. What a tragedy it would be if the high-precision innovations enabled by this amazing system, pioneered, designed, launched and maintained by the United States, ended up working everywhere in the world except in the U.S. Would it be right to lose our leadership and negotiating advantages in global positioning and to become a true international embarrassment — in part because someone’s cousin could not master his car navigation device? 


Gavin Schrock is a licensed surveyor and technology writer for industry publications.